Recalling my early years in Christian ministry, I am embarrassed to realize how much I invested in something that could have been called "Gordon MacDonald, Inc." It was too much about me and not enough about Jesus and others.
Somewhere along the line, my self-building activities gave way to building an organization, a church-organization. That meant recruiting teams, encouraging leaders, conceiving strategies that would cause a congregation to grow (both spiritually and numerically). Pastoring became a very satisfying experience, and I loved my work … most of the time.
But one weekend, after years of organization building, I awakened to something much better—a sweet spot of ministry, you could say, where it all just seemed right. Rather than building me or even building an organization, I discovered people-building, a ministry with younger Christians who—properly prepared—might go on to be difference-makers in some part of the kingdom.
That awakening happened when I visited the United States Military Academy at West Point as a speaker in the cadet chapel. I was astonished at the dignity and excellence of the men and women I met. It was unforgettable.
The mission of the USMA is: "to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country, and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army."
It got me wondering: what is the equivalent in the church where I pastor? Where and how do we educate, train, and inspire leaders capable of influencing others for the sake of Jesus Christ? The truth was that we weren't doing that.
Oh, sure, we had leadership training among our programs. Our bulletin might read: "Anyone wanting training in this or that activity should come out on Wednesday night." In 90 minutes, we inferred, we'll make you a leader. Kind of like the TV deals: three payments of $39.95, and we'll make you a real estate tycoon.
That's not how it's done at West Point or Annapolis or the Air Force Academy. In those schools, it's not so simple.
New leaders don't just happen
At home I tried to sell my vision of a "West Point" leadership development effort to our staff, our lay leadership, to anyone willing to listen. Apparently I did a poor job. I got smiles, agreement-in-principle, and comments like, "we need to think about that … sometime." I think my problem was, at first, that I was all words and few specifics.
Then one day I got it. A vision with no precedent in a church usually requires that someone (me, in this case) do the job himself.
A breakthrough occurred when my wife, Gail, realizing I was serious, said, "This is something you and I could do together. And I think we'd be smart if we took the idea out of the church building and into our home." It was the first of her many bright ideas.
We searched for materials that fit our vision, and we found nothing satisfying. We realized that leadership development is not a program. It is about strong relationships in which people grow to be what God designed them to be. Sort of like what Jesus made happen when he selected 12 learners to be with him. Twelve guys in whom he—and he only—saw leadership (or influence) potential.
Gail and I decided to select 12-14 people and see what might be possible.